Archive for the ‘documentary’ Category

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The Incredible Jessica James

Jessica Williams stars as the titular Jessica James, an aspiring New York City playwright on the bad end of a breakup. It’s a showcase for the comedian, consisting largely of her character’s whimsical take on life, love and ambition with little by way of plot besides wanting to make it big and maybe meet a nice guy while she’s at it.

It provides enough laughs for the price of admission, and is an encouraging argument in favor of Williams as protagonist. But there’s not a lot of there, there, and not much to say beyond what a million other young-in-New-York films have said before.

Grade: B-

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The Big Sick

Written by and based on the life of Kumail Nanjiani, The Big Sick functions like an inter-nationality take on “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” for the millennial generation.

Before he was an anchor player on TV Comedies like Silicon Valley, Nanjiani was a stand-up comedian slumming it on his way up the food chain and a closeted agnostic in a family of strict adherents to Islam and Pakistani culture, which includes arranged marriages. In the dramatized version, he meets the decided *not* Pakistani Emily (Zoe Kazan) after a gig, kicking off a courtship that is tested first by his reluctance to reveal all to his disapproving parents and second by a mystery ailment that places Emily in a medically-induced coma.

The writing is sharp and funny, with a nice blend of comedy and drama as Kumail deals with the titular “Big Sick” Emily is going through. It also includes knock-out supporting roles by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. That the movie ends on a positive note isn’t spoiling much, and the film easily earns its sentimental finish.

Grade: A

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An Inconvenient Sequel

In a way its frightening that we’ve had 10 years since Al Gore first delivered his power point presentation on climate change in “An Inconvenient Truth” only to still be debating the science of carbon emission.  But at least the ensuing decade has given the once-and-future president plenty of material for a round two.

Yes, the ice has melted, the waters have risen, the storms have worsened and myriad other Gore predictions have manifested, but “Sequel” also goes beyond the doom and gloom to track the real and significant political efforts made, notably the Paris Agreement of last year. Naturally, President Trump’s pledge to tear up that agreement and double down on fossil fuels is a bummer for Gore, and a bit of a thorn in the third act of “Sequel,” the documentary still manages a message of optimism among its impressively researched call to arms.

Grade: B+

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Rememory

The best way to describe “Rememory” is that it is relentlessly serious. Peter Dinklage stars as one of several broken souls in a pseudo-science fiction world in which a machine has been created that can record and display the mind’s memories. When the machine’s inventor dies under suspicious circumstances, Dinklage’s Sam steals the memory machine in order to both probe his own dark past and solve the inventor’s murder. But the final reveal on both points is underwhelming and bogged down by the slog of dull greys and moody glances.

It’s a notable film, largely due being one of the final performances of the late Anton Yelchin, and there are a lot of lofty ideas about how life’s experiences shape us into who we are. But its ambitions our ground into powder by its crushing atmosphere.

Grade: C+

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You know its a good year for cinema when we have not one, but *two* musicals in the Top 10. And not one, or even two, but *three* exclamation points in the Top 10 titles. But even if you don’t share my love for the powers of song of punctuation, there’s a depth and range to the roster of 2016 films that can not be denied, and that made for an excellent 12 in front of screens big and small (but preferably big).

Without further ado, the Top 10 movies released this year were:

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10. Nocturnal Animals

There’s just something about a classic tale of revenge, and in “Nocturnal Animals” we get two, simultaneously. In the more traditional sense there is the story of Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal) who suffers an unspeakable tragedy and, with the help of a local lawman (the indispensable Michael Shannon), goes after those responsible. But Tony is actually is the main character in a novel by Edward Sheffield (also Jake Gyllenhaal) who has sent a manuscript of his work to his estranged ex-wife (Amy Adams).

“Animals” is easier to follow than that description suggests, but it is far from uncomplicated. Director Tom Ford is in no hurray to reveal the emotional manipulations at play, or to reveal explicitly the degree to which the two narratives should be viewed as connected. It’s a dark, violent and tragic story that leaves much to interpretation, with much to digest long after the credits roll.

 

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9. Hail, Caesar!

Whether it be “True Grit,” “No Country for Old Men” or “Raising Arizona,” you can always tell when you’re watching a Coen Brothers film, and it’s never *not* enjoyable.

Still, the brothers have made something special with “Hail, Caesar!” a winking tribute-slash-mockery of the golden age of Hollywood, when dames were dames and everyone was looking over their shoulders for the communists lurking among them.

It may not be the same high-drama awards bait of the directing duo’s filmography, but good luck stopping yourself from rewinding whole scenes to watch them again, be it Channing Tatum leading a  tap dancing send-up of “South Pacific” or the exquisite wordplay of the “Would that it were so simple” sequence between Alden Ehrenreich and Ralph Fiennes (whose character name is, brilliantly “Laurence Laurentz”).

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8. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Part coming-of-age story and part Odd-couple comedy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the quirky and endearing New Zealand-set comedy adventure you had no idea you so desperately needed this year.

Foster child and misunderstood “bad egg” Ricky is taken in by warm-hearted Bella and her rough-around-the-edges husband Hec. And after a series of unfortunate events and misunderstandings, Ricky and Hec find themselves the target of a national manhunt as they take to living in “the bush” and working to evade discovery by the authorities.

The chemistry between Ricky (Julian Dennison) and a delightfully crotchety Sam Neil is what makes the film work, as the hunt for the two runaways swells to surprising surreal levels. Keep an eye on director Taika Waititi, whose next project is the upcoming  superhero flick “Thor: Ragnarok.”

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7. Weiner

“Weiner” is the best political documentary ever made. Period. And it owes its alchemy to a fortuitous union of skill and circumstance, as a capable team of storytellers are given unprecedented access to their subject, who in turn manages to torpedo his entire life in front of the camera’s staring gaze.

Anthony Weiner clearly expected a different outcome when he granted the documentarians access, and for the first third you see the story that might have been: a down-but-not-out politician licks his wounds, gets back in the ring and defies expectations to become mayor of New York. But then another shoe drops, and another, and of course the audience knows that there are more waiting even after Weiner is forced to concede defeat.

But what really makes “Weiner” (the movie) something almost Shakespearean is the presence of long-suffering (and now ex-) wife Huma Abedin. An infamous introvert, she hovers at the edge of frame, her jaw set, tense, watching. When the inevitable occurs, it’s Abadin that keeps “Weiner” from being a punch line about a serial screw-up,  and instead a stinging portrait of a political family destroyed by poor judgement.

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6. Everybody Wants Some!!

In 1993, Richard Linklater made “Dazed and Confused,” an American Graffiti-esque film set in 1976 and following a sprawling cast of students celebrating the first night of summer.

Two decades later, Linklater has made his so-called “spiritual sequel,” which is set in 1980 and follows a college basketball team over the last weekend before fall semester starts.

Fans of Dazed will get exactly what they’re looking for, while newcomers will find an endearing and optimistic slice-of-life story about young adults in 1980s America. Like Linklater’s “Boyhood,” EWS is filled with small moments that find the dramatic beauty in humanity and average, everyday lives.

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5. The Lobster

And now for something completely different…”The Lobster” posits a world in which adults are not allowed to be single, to the extent that after losing his wife, David (Colin Farrell) is compelled to reside at a hotel and given 45 days to find a new partner or be turned into an animal of his choosing – in David’s case, the titular crustacean.

Split into two parts, The Lobster first looks at life within the hotel, with its bizarre customs, restrictions and pressures to find a soulmate at any cost. Then, after David flees, we see the other half of Lobster’s world, as our hero joins up with a nomadic gang of woods-dwelling fugitives who have one iron-clad rule: no coupling.

It’s bizarre, to say the least, and wonderful. With a cast of completely game actors (including Rachel Weisz and John C. Reilly)  fully committed to the absurdities of the premise and its execution, Lobster builds on its dry, often dark, humor to an ending that is perfect and disturbingly outlandish.

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4. Moonlight

*The* Roger Ebert often described film as an “empathy machine,” and of all of this year’s movies that role of the cinema is best captured in “Moonlight,” which uses three actors in three time periods to tell the story of a man’s life.  As a child, Little is a soft-spoken boy neglected and demeaned by his substance-addicted mother and taken under the wing of the neighborhood dealer. As a teenager, Chiron is bullied and beaten by his peers and strains to find his place. And finally as a man, Black has adopted the career of his childhood mentor, but seeks out an old friend from his younger years.

It’s a moving, and at times haunting, portrait, and a showcase of diversity. But it’s also understated, and confident. It doesn’t shout “look at me!”  but still results in a film that is impossible to look away from.

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3. Hell or High Water

Too few films are set outside of America’s coastal cities, and fewer still depict the people who reside in America’s heartland as actual people and not flat caricatures.

In Hell or High Water, brothers Tanner and Toby are pressured into desperate measures by desperate times. Their family’s ranch, despite sitting atop an ocean of oil, has fallen into the clutches of predatory banking. To save it, they launch a scheme to rob the money to pay the mortgage from the same banking institutions that have left them in dire straits. On their heels is Marcus Hamilton, a beyond his years law enforcement man circling the drain before he’s shown the door.

The relationship between the brothers is rich, owing no small feat to the capabilities of Chris Pine and Ben Foster (one of the most underrated actors of his generation). They wear their reluctance on their tired faces, and brace themselves against a gathering storm closing in around them.

And while there’s an element of cat-and-mouse as they get closer to their coal, the story never dips into fantasy. It feels real at every turn: real people, pressured into real decisions by the all-too-familiar realities of American economics.

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2. Manchester by the Sea

“Manchester by the Sea” is a heartbreaking, profoundly sad story about loss and grief. It’s also beautiful and inspiring. After his brother dies, Lee (a phenomenal Casey Affleck) is called back to his childhood home and tasked with looking after his nephew Patrick (an also phenomenal Lucas Hedges). But returning home means confronting old demons, and Lee struggles to reconcile his loyalty to his family and his own compulsion to put distance between himself and his past.

Manchester is a master-class of “show don’t tell,” with Affleck in particularly conveying more with his gestures and expression than even the lengthiest monologue could manage. Many sequences are practically wordless, and the mood hangs heavy, despite being punctuated by frequent instances of warming humor.

Directed by Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester is the type of film where the seems of movie-making disappear, and you forget for a moment that you’re watching fiction.

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1. La La Land

Through three films together, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have crafted a level of creative chemistry unparalleled in modern Hollywood. It helps that both actors are independently charming, but their combined effect is something akin to fireworks.

Take that element, and add it to the showmanship of a well-made musical production and what you have is cinematic magic.

Stone plays Mia, an aspiring but as-yet-unsuccessful actress whose day job is serving coffee on a studio backlot. Gosling plays Sebastian, or “Seb” for short, a jazz pianist and musical idealist who rejects the dilution of pop. They meet, over and over again under circumstances that are delightful,  before a romance eventually blossoms, and in each other they find creative inspirations and motivations that position them at the precipice of either realizing their dreams or falling in defeat.

All of which is set against a backdrop of song and dance numbers that  embrace the old-Hollywood legacy of “Singing in the Rain” and “West Side Story” albeit with a concertedly modern setting and style. But this is not simply a light and breezy affair, concerned only with vibrant colors and Joie de Vivre (both of which, it has in spades). “La La Land” climaxes on a forceful musical number by Stone, singing a tribute to “the ones who dream” and then, in its final moments, the film presents one last pièce de résistance sequence that dazzles you before punching you in the stomach, leaving you wide-eyed, out of breath, and looking to find where your jaw landed on the floor.

Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, the 31-year-old (!!!) phenom behind 2014’s “Whiplash,” “La La Land” exudes the confidence of a veteran filmmaker. But think on this, Chazelle has directly exactly 2 feature films, and it’s all-but-assured that both will have been nominated for Best Picture Oscars when this year’s list is announced (and it’s looking entirely likely that La La Land will score the statuette come ceremony night). If I were to have a complaint about the otherwise perfect film, it would be the nagging knowledge that its director is two years older than myself, which has the unfortunately side effect of making you feel inferior before greatness.

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*Note: This review was originally published during coverage of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

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It’s easy to imagine a parallel universe in which Anthony Weiner successfully repented of his sins (or never committed them in the first place) and won an unlikely victory in the race for mayor of New York City. In that universe, one can only speculate on what could have been in the embattled politician’s future.

The contrast between that once-bright vision and Weiner’s corresponding fall from grace, is made all the more Shakespearean in this searing, at-times-uncomfortably intimate documentary, which tracks the meteoric rise, fall, resurgence and crushing implosion of an American political career.

“Weiner,” the film, is shot with astounding access to Weiner, the man’s, inner circle. That access was no doubt expected to chronicle a much different, and much more positive, outcome, and it makes the inevitable trainwreck all the more daunting as it approaches.

But the film also succeeds at humanizing a man who became a national punchline. Weiner is shown here as passionate, energetic, sympathetic and deeply, deeply flawed. The film juggles the laugh-out-loud humor of a campaign in crisis with the profound sadness of watching a family and marriage nearly torn apart by scandal.

That no other politician would allow this level of exposure, combined with the singular drama of Weiner’s personal story, creates a documentary experience with few equals.

Grade: A

*Weiner opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 3.

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Sleight

Jacob Latimore stars as Bo, a street magician by day and drug dealer by night who gets in too deep with his criminal employer and has to rely on his illusions to get his family out of a jam.

Written and directed by J.D. Dillard, “Sleight” has a winning combination of playful charm and a dangerous edge. His protagonist is sympathetic and flawed, a balance capably handled by Latimore, whose career appears to be full of potential.

There are echoes to last year’s Sundance darling, “Dope,” albeit with a tone that plays like a superhero origin story. And while there’s plenty of familiar beat’s in Dillard’s script, the director carefully builds to well executed climax that stays just this side of fantasy.

Grade: B

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The Birth of a Nation

Writer-director-star Nate Parker blew the doors off Sundance with this historical epic, which netted a record $17.5 million pickup. The film tells the story of Nat Turner, who led a violent slave revolt in Virginia in 1831, and is filled to the brim with commentary on America’s past, present and future.

While limited by a independent budget, Parker’s camera captures plenty of stomach-churning horrors. Prior to his rebellion, Turner visits neighboring plantations as a preacher-for-hire, providing a window into the disparate treatment eked out by slaveowners reacting and adapting to economic downturn.

The film seems perfectly poised to drop into the current national conversation on race in America. Its rough edges could slow it down in the mainstream market, but it’s a meaningful, boldly-made film with plenty to say.

Grade: B+

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The Bad Kids

Set in an alternative high school in California, “The Bad Kids” is a fly-on-the-wall documentary about empathy in education.

The school at the heart of the film is the proverbial one where the bad kids go, only directors Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe are more interested in how a dedicated educator, in the case the school’s principal, can have a profound effect on an otherwise neglected child’s chances for success.

The stories in the film are intensely personal, and Fulton and Pepe handle them with care. But that same focus on a single school and its students has a myopic quality, making it unclear how the lessons learned would be applied elsewhere.

Grade: B

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How to Let Go of the World (and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change)

The subject of climate change has been treated by many documentary filmmakers, to varying degrees of success. “How to Let Go of the World” is one of the more effective examples, showing the physical effects of a warming world, from families displaced by major storms to island nations vanishing under rising seas and air so polluted by fossil-fuel dependency that children can’t play outside.

Director Josh Fox (“Gasland”), banjo in tow, globe-trots while documenting the creeping environmental crisis and the steps both made and ignored as danger. The film runs unnecessarily long, buoyed by distracting insertions of Fox into the story, but the overall portrait is sufficiently alarming while also clinging to hope that mankind can save itself from the edge.

Grade: B+

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White Girl

After moving from Oklahoma to New York City for school, Leah (Homeland’s Morgan Saylor) embraces the freedom of adulthood through nonstop partying and drug use. That leads her into the arms of Blue, the friendly neighborhood drug dealer, who is promptly scooped up by the law, leaving a heartsick Leah with a bag of cocaine and the drive to rescue Blue from America’s arcane mandatory minimum laws.

“White Girl” is aggressively non-puritanical, but it’s still challenging to look past what amounts to Bad Decisions: The Movie. Leah’s quest to free Blue is dogged by a consistent stream of failures that are either the result of everyone in the world of the movie being a disgusting creep or the result of our heroin insisting on snorting one more line.

There’s a commentary here about our modern times, drug laws and racial privilege. But any nuance is buried under layers of exhaustion as an unsympathetic protagonist stumbles from one disaster to the next.

Grade: C

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*Note: This review were originally published during coverage of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival

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The Hunting Ground

With the infamous Rolling Stone article about campus rape still sending ripples through the academic community, it’s easy to see Kirby Dick’s “The Hunting Ground” as especially timely.

But what the documentary makes uncomfortably clear is that the epidemic of campus sexual assault is not a recent evil to hit our college and university campuses, nor is it limited to the prestigious upper crust of academia. It is a nationwide plague that has been thriving in  for decades, reaching one out of every 4 or 5 women who set foot on the campus of an institution of higher education.

The statistics are damming and well-documented, but what “The Hunting Ground” emphasizes is the insidious circumstances that lead universities to downplay or even cover-up the criminal acts taking place under their noses. They know where the problems are, with a minority of student predators accounting for the majority of assaults and statistically higher rates of violence among student athletes and fraternities. But higher education runs on money, and it’s easier to shame a victim into silence than take on the powerful booster-check-writing parents of football stars and frat house presidents.

It’s impossible to watch “The Hunting Ground” without becoming angry, hearing first hand accounts of women and men who describe the treatment they received at the hands of campus officials as worse than the actual crimes committed against them. We see them describe, in choked-back tears, how they were ostracized from the campus community while their attackers are allowed to thrive, attack other students and, in one high-profile case, win the Heisman Trophy ahead of a likely first-round draft pick in the NFL.

Grade: A

*The Hunting Ground opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 3.

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*Note: Portions of this review were first posted during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival

Roger Ebert — a man whose name is as associated with film as are Hitchcock, Fellini and Spielberg — was the premiere voice of film criticism in America and the first movie reviewer to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Last year, he passed away after a yearslong fight with Thyroid cancer, leaving behind a legacy that will never, and truly can not, be matched.

In “Life Itself,” the documentary based on Ebert’s memoir of the same name, filmmaker Steve James paints a comprehensive portrait of the man. With Ebert’s full collaboration — or rather, encouragement — James’ camera captures the struggles with alcoholism, the contentious relationship with longtime colleague Gene Siskel, as well as the ego, the poise, the drive, the romantic. We see Mr. Ebert’s final weeks in the hospital leading up to his death, expressive and jovial, cracking wise and energetically describing his favorite films as well as the low moments in physical therapy when the frustrations boil beneath his voicelessness.

But in telling the history of a man at the movies, James’ also produces something of a love letter to the history of film criticism. We watch Eberts’ evolution from a beat reporter in Chicago to a nationally-recognized expert on film and along the way James’ presents us with Eberts’ famous philosophy of film serving as a machine for empathy, uniting diverse minds and presenting an audience with a peek into the world through another person’s perspective.

At one point late in the film Mr. Ebert, speaking with the assistance of his computer, remarks that he does not fear death as it is a part of life and would have felt cheated if his time had come abruptly as a result of an accident, cheating his life out of its poetic arc.

“This is the third act and it is an experience,” Ebert says.

The film is a must-see for any film fan and an insightful portrait of a legend whose life was, in many ways, a living tribute to the power of cinema.

Grade: Two thumbs way, way up

*Life Itself opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 25.

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*Portions of this review were published in January as part of my coverage of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival

After Tiller

In 2009, late-term abortionist Dr. George Tiller was assassinated while attending church services in Kansas. His death left four of his friends and former colleagues as the only practicing late-term abortionists in the country.

In After Tiller, directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson invite us into the lives and practices of these four doctors, as they struggle to provide a service they deem morally and ethically necessary as groups literally and figuratively gather outside to stop them. You could criticize the movie for being one-sided, but the quiet tone of the film is less about debate as it is about demonstration. Most people never see the inside of an abortion clinic, but the picket lines, banners and megaphones outside paint a picture of dark alleyways and rusty scalpels. By making this documentary, the audience is shown a staff of emotionally invested, caring people, who struggle with the ethical implications of what they do and worry about what a woman may resort to if denied the service that only they can provide.

In June, I wrote a post listing After Tiller as one of four documentaries that changed my mind, or caused me to reconsider my position on a controversial issue. The film is a compelling narrative that I would recommend for all viewers, and must-see for anyone who considers themselves either pro-life or pro-choice.

There are no simple answers to the abortion debate, but by stripping away the yelling, screaming and high emotion that typically surrounds a discussion of the issue, Shane and Wilson are able to provide probing and insightful answers from some of the most hated people in America.

Grade: A-

*After Tiller opens in Utah theaters on Friday, Oct. 18.

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